The Same Everywhere


The other week, I went on a long anticipated travel adventure with a friend.

I’ve been a big fan of Cajun and Zydeco music for years. At a Redstick Ramblers concert last year, here in Chicago, Kevin, the lead fiddler, a red-bearded gentle bear of a man, invited the entire audience to come down to Lahf-yet Looz-ee-anna for the Blackpot Festival and Gumbo Cook-off. I plastered the last weekend of October dates all over my office as inspiration. When I accepted the fact that I would not be visiting South America this fall, there was no way I was going to miss the Blackpot Festival.

A friend and I flew down to the Big Easy Thursday, October 28th. The plan was to hang out in the French Quarter and warehouse district that day then pick up a car to drive to Lafayette Friday morning. We’d leave Lafayette Sunday morning and drive back to N’awlins on Halloween, in time for brunch at Commanders Palace in the Garden District and then catch a small voodoo festival on Dumaine Street around sunset.

The minute I walked off the plane I was excited. I have a very special fondness for New Orleans, a town with more soul than any I can imagine. Ah, what to do first… There were plenty of antique shops and museums. I had never been to City Park before. Weeks ago, I contemplated going on some cemetery and haunted house tours. But, after we made an important lunch stop to have oyster po’boy sandwiches and Abita Amber at the Acme Oyster House, all we wanted to do was BE in New Orleans. We simply walked around the Quarter, in and out of shops and art galleries, trying to jog our respective memories on past New Orleans adventures and remember our local geography. Was The Kitchen Witch where we thought it would be? Did St. Ann Street cut over all the way to Decatur Street? What was the best route to the Café du Monde?

Being in a new place with no particular destination is a joy. My friend and I exercised the simplest form of democracy. After we looked in the windows of specialty stores and galleries, we would look up at each other with unattached openness. We didn’t have to ask out loud. We negotiated the “Do you want to go in?” question by expression alone — one door at a time.

And it seemed that the local school children were given the afternoon off to trick ‘r treat among the small shops in the Quarter. The spirit of surprise and generosity were everywhere. I saw fairy princesses and Darth Vaders, hobos and bumblebees, skeletons, and knights in shining aluminum. The shopkeepers would comment appropriately on how beautiful or frightful their visitors were and dole out handfuls of candy from their waiting supply.

I thought about how a similar ritual was taking place on North Lincoln Avenue and Roscoe Street in my own neighborhood. The business owners would be finding the appeal of costumed children as enjoyable as ringing up their registers.

And I couldn’t help but recall the adage about people being the same everywhere. This, of course, is true. Thing is, when I travel, I’m not the same.

Traveling makes you look at things in a fresh way. It’s a chance to see how people celebrate different traditions and demonstrate how they belong to their tribe. It’s also a chance to see without looking.

When you’re out of your own routine and have no agenda or place where you have to be, you can really settle into the being-ness of where you are.

Appreciating the way a little trip opens your eyes and heart is no small thing.

Moonstruck


When I look outside,
Beyond my window,
Across the alley,
Above the neighbor’s garage —
I see darkness reaching
Beyond my imagination,
Flecked with non-darkness like possibilities scattered
Across a lifetime.

Above stars and earthly haze,
My attention attaches to a single silver sphere,
Perfect in its stillness,
Wordlessly expressive,
A wisdom always
Nearby,
Nearly realized,
Nearly born —
All the possibilities of the universe
In one luminous bubble,
My own Child Self,
Eternally safe in amniotic space.

When I look inside,
Beyond my memories,
Across my dreams,
Above my fears……
I see the moon.

In 1995, I wrote a poem about the moon. I loved its constancy. Every night, it always showed up. Whether clear or hazy, I knew where in the sky to look for it. Even as it changed its shape, its outward appearance, as most things will do, its essence never really changed. If it wasn’t full, I was content thinking that it was taking a much deserved exhale, or was in the process of becoming full again. The moon always seems to help me believe in possibilities. It is always perfect and always in the process of becoming.

And again, fifteen years after I wrote my ode to the moon, I feel the same. I am filled with a quiet delight when I am driving east into the city from the suburbs, on a fall evening, when the air is crisp and I am becoming aware that the night’s darkness is arriving earlier and earlier. I might be very tired from the day, but I am re-energized when I spy the moon rise.

I saw it last night. I went out to dinner with my friend Holly. We had just parked the car and started walking down Broadway to a small Ethiopian storefront restaurant. I announced that the moon was supposed to be full that evening. We both stared up and looked at a swatch of sky and waited for the moon to become visible for us. As if on cue, a cluster of clouds seemed to split apart and the silvery white disc came into focus as if at the end of a tunnel.

I saw the moon last night; full and silent and unashamed, rising above the city skyline…and I felt happy.

Being reminded of possibility and perfection is no small thing.

Remembering Names

“Vanessa’s having her usual,” the Starbucks’ baristo shouted.

I’m not much of a Starbucks patron. For one thing, I don’t drink coffee. But this morning, before heading downtown for the day, I didn’t have time to make breakfast, and I had a Starbucks gift card in my purse. I had a vision that there was a cinnamon scone with my name on it tilted coyly on display in their glass pastry case. It was drizzled with overly-sweet white icing.

“Vanessa’s having her usual.”

The baristo, a tall thin man in his early twenties, wearing a black logo decorated baseball cap, repeated the order. He called down the counter to two other crew members, two women, who were even younger. They were similarly decked out in black slacks and long-sleeved button down shirts, black baseball caps and green cotton aprons.

The girl closest to the coffee machine, with a fresh from the farm complexion and four piercings in one ear lobe, giggled then pulled out the appropriately sized cardboard cup.

“This is the second day in a row that you remembered her name now, isn’t it?” she teased her co-worker.

“Yes,” he replied as she started the process of filling, frothing and flavoring Vanessa’s standing order.

“I have a buffer of about 720 names,” he went on. “I am sure the names of most of the people we see all the time are in there. Somewhere.”

I confess I was pretty impressed with his recall. When the other girl rang up my order and deducted today’s purchase from the balance on my gift card, I didn’t even think about the more impressive demonstration of information retention. How did the other girl remember what Vanessa’s usual was? Did she like her coffee strong or weak? Creamy? Black? Sweet?

Vanessa, a short thirty-something with black and blond streaked, spiked hair, started fumbling through her handbag looking for her wallet. The big, black leather number would barely have qualified as acceptable overhead storage according to any airline’s policy. She seemed happy. She looked up at the three servers and smiled. She must have been happy that the baristo remembered her name.

Calling people by their name is an incredibly welcoming gesture, a small way to say, “Yes, you matter.” I know that when I do appointment-setting or other types of professional phone work, I always make a point of repeating the contact’s name. Even when I am just leaving a message, after I leave my phone number, I add “John,” or “Lorraine,” or “Billy Bob,” … “I’m looking forward to talking with you.”

Seeing this short scene at the mother of all corporate controlled experience providers was really heartening. And it wasn’t even about me. It wasn’t even my “usual” that everyone seemed to know. But it got me thinking that if I did drink coffee, if I did visit a specific café practically every day, like Vanessa, I imagined how happy I would be to be remembered.

Hearing someone remember your name is no small thing.

Night at the Lesbian Karaoke Irish Bar

Last Saturday, I asked a friend if she would go to a neighborhood street festival with me. It would be full of fun music, overpriced beer in plastic cups, great tasting food from the not so heart healthy menu, and lots of kiosks of hand-crafted jewelry, which we would invariably ooh and aah over then figure out if we could make something similar ourselves. One of the headlining bands, I explained, did rocking covers of 80’s music like Talking Heads and Huey Lewis.

“Count me in,” she said. “Afterwards, can we go to the lesbian karaoke Irish bar? It’s close to my place.”

I pondered this for a second. I am not a lesbian, and I am actually not a big karaoke fan, but as she described the experience, I couldn’t say no.

“It’s really great,” she went on. “A lot of lesbians come to the place, but gay guys and straights come too. It’s also popular with Native Americans. Everyone really feels free to be themselves and everybody really gets along well with each other.”

After several hours bouncing between the three stages on Roscoe, four beers, one Italian beef sandwich apiece and lots of banter about the abundance of high-end strollers, equipped with multiple hide-away cup holders, we headed to the Lincoln Square area.

When we walked into the bar, the owner, a middle-aged woman with jet black hair and the most striking yellow-green eyes I have ever seen, greeted us. It was around 10:30 and still easy to find an open stool. A half hour later, that would no longer be the case.

My friend lugged the bar’s bible, the binder with laminated sheets listing all the song titles, to our stools. There must have been hundreds, maybe thousands of titles. I joked about performing, and mispronouncing, the Elton John classic, “Hold Me Closer, Tony Danza,” but I was quickly chickening out of making my karaoke debut. No shortage of other talent, though.

There was a bride to be, coyly accessorized in a plastic veil, and her entire posse sitting close to the mic along with a variety of regulars who attended a local music school. Ringers, most of them. I noticed the bar started filling up. There were ladies on dates with their best lady friend, logo-tee wearing straight guys shooting darts and slamming down shots of tequila, gays, fresh from Halsted Street Market Days (another street fair that took place that day in Boys Town)…and the parade of karaoke stars began.

A bridesmaid (apparently no newcomer to a microphone) started things off with a killer version of Killing Me Softly. Then the bride belted out George Michael’s Somebody to Love. Everyone joined in on the chorus as she twirled her veil with her fingers. A tall twenty-something, baring more than a few piercings, belted out Dolly Parton’s Jolene. Everybody was very tolerant when a young guy felt compelled to go counter-crowd and do Springsteen’s Born in the USA. About an hour into the songfest, someone did an artifcially inspirational number from a contemporary musical I wasn’t familiar with.

“Damn” the woman next to me pounded her palm on the top of the bar. “They should outlaw this song from karaoke bars everywhere.” In her mid-twenties, with cornflower blue eyes, pale skin and non-descript brown hair styled in a mullet, she went on to explain. “I come from a small town in Ohio. They sang this damn song at our high school’s graduation for four straight years.”

Those of us within earshot patted her shoulder in consolation. Yes, there ought to be a karaoke law of some sort.

While I did not close the place down, during my night at the lesbian karoke Irish bar, I ended up hearing quite a cavalcade of memory joggers sung by every kind of person you could imagine. After a day in Stroller Village, this was especially heartening.

Seeing that there is a place for EVERYONE, a place of laughter and belonging, is no small thing.